We’ve all been there. That exhilarating time when brilliant ideas strike at stoplights and snatches of dialogue write themselves in our heads while picking up the kids from school or attempting (and failing) to fall asleep. Characters rebel and take on lives of their own, they haunt our dreams, and drive us mad in the best possible way.
And then life throws a sucker punch and all progress grinds to a halt. I suspect a lot of us have been there, too.
Here’s my story:
Back in April, while I powered through the last chapters of the-rewrite-that-tried-to-kill-me, my daughter started complaining about her knees. She’s in a ballet company and trains anywhere from ten to twenty hours a week, depending on the proximity to a production; aches and pains are inevitable. Since she still pirouetted around the house, I wasn’t concerned.
She had no “uh oh” moment, no swelling, no bruising, but the pain soon robbed her of the ability to dance en pointe, which for her is the equivalent of having every drop of joy wrung from her body and thrown out the window. I took her to an orthopedist. Her diagnosis: Plica Syndrome. No, I’d never heard of it either. Plica are extra membranes in the knee that many people have and with which most of those people peacefully coexist. In athletes who perform repetitive motions, such as plies, those membranes can become inflamed and make life miserable.
Her prescription: Take Meloxicam and ice the knees before and after every class.
After gritting her teeth through a performance in June, she took a week off to rest, and then another. She lamented that even walking hurt, that she felt like she was thirteen going on eighty. There were no more pirouettes around the house. No requests for help stretching her feet or her hamstrings. Her life was reduced to sitting on the couch and playing Minecraft with her sister. On our next visit, the orthopedist offered a surgical solution. Her need to dance overpowered her terror of having anyone go near her knees with scalpel or scope. He assured her that she could return to the studio as soon as she felt up to it without any restrictions.
Company auditions were in the fall and she dreamed of being promoted to the top tier and dancing Snow in the next Nutcracker.
He said that might still happen.
She said, “Take them out.”
Since plica aren’t visible on X-ray or an MRI, surgeons have no idea of what they’ll encounter until the scope is in. The bigger the plica, the more digging and cutting involved and the longer the recovery time. My child had the dubious honor of having “monstrous” plica.
She left the hospital on crutches and we both believed her life would soon return to normal. I set aside my laptop to become a full-time chauffeur, cheerleader, counselor, physical therapy coach and nurse. Bringer of ice for her knees and chocolate for her soul.
“My knees still hurt,” she said every day.
“Give it time,” I told her. The question of how much time lingered in the air between us.
Fast forward two months. She was back in the studio and graduated from only doing the barre portion of class to the whole class. She even put on her pointe shoes. I sighed with relief and revisited the feedback from my beta readers. Ideas swirled. My characters’ voices returned. I reworked the opening chapter.
And then she showed me a swollen knot above the arch of her right foot.
Another orthopedist. More physical therapy.
She healed for a week and then everything flared. The arch, the knees, an old ankle injury.
More doctors. More therapy. Another MRI. She stoically endured the business end of a syringe filled with cortisone, which so far has paid off. Good thing. If it hadn’t, we’d both have needed another form of therapy.
This test of patience and sanity has taught me some eye-opening lessons that may prove helpful to others faced with the frustration that comes with temporarily ignoring the muse.
Life happens when you step away from the computer and turn off your phone. This experience forced me to be fully present for my daughter in a way I probably haven’t been in a while. There have been tears, sure. There have been Hormone Wars. There have been many, many hours in the car and stuck in waiting rooms. All that time has been filled with conversation. How many people can say they have a teenager who talks to them about hopes, dreams and insecurities?
When routines are paused, we are forced out of living on auto-pilot. We slow down, observe more, listen more, empathize more. We connect. We live. All this will enrich our stories when the time is right. Perhaps it will lead us to new stories.
Mine the experience. If you are thrust into a caretaker role, is there a way you can use that experience in your novel? Could you put your character in a position of seeing someone through illness or injury? If not, could you put them in a situation where they will face exhaustion, isolation or helplessness? If you are the one who needs the support, how might that enhance your understanding of a character in your story.
Find the positive. Do you have a great support system? A wonderful doctor? Do you know someone in a situation so terrible that your problems are small in comparison? My daughter’s temporary and non-life-threatening condition, while annoying, is nothing compared to the diagnosis of bone cancer one of her dance acquaintances recently received. The urge to whine or fall into a depression diminishes when worse scenarios are pondered.
There is such thing as too much isolation, even for an introvert. Stir-crazy writers = way too much rambling around others and way too much internal monologue on the page.
Some days writing will not get done, and that is okay. Give yourself permission not to feel guilty when other things must take priority.
If you have a free hour, spend it with your characters, not on Facebook. You may be able to write a few hundred words in that time, which will make you feel empowered. If you are too exhausted to compose, try tweaking an old scene. Reward yourself for any progress.
Crappy words will do for now. If there is a choice between no words or crappy words, embrace the stench.
Have you faced a big interruption (positive or negative) in your productivity? Was your writing ultimately enhanced or diminished by it? How did you get back on track?
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